When English singer-songwriter George Ezra started telling friends he was planning on renting a spare room for a month in house in Barcelona and shacking up with a random person he found online, he kept on getting the same reaction. “It was like, what the fuck are you doing?” laughs Ezra. “Why are you going to go live with a stranger?”
While the stay got off to a rocky start (“My first few days I just wasn’t sure”), Ezra wound up befriending the aforementioned stranger, named Tamara, and her eclectic band of friends. “They were all artists and designers and used her place as a headquarters. I wound up loving it. There was a real energy there.”
The gamble paid off handsomely for Ezra, with his experience in the Spanish capital becoming a source of plentiful inspiration for his recently released sophomore album, Staying at Tamara’s, with his host the titular inspiration. “When I told her I was naming the album after her, she wasn’t that excited if I’m being honest. It was more like, ‘Yeah, go for it.’ She’s a cool customer living a different pace of life out there.”
Regardless of his former host’s apparent lack of enthusiasm, Staying at Tamara’s marks the next chapter in a career that kicked off when his acoustic guitar-driven “Budapest” became an unlikely hit in 2014. It was a song the then-unknown 20-year-old artist wrote while on a train trip around Europe and quickly became a global chart-topper, peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot Rock Songs chart in the United States, becoming a top 10 hit in a handful of countries, and snagging Ezra a nomination for Song of the Year at the BBC Music Awards and an Artist to Watch nod at the MTV Video Music Awards. Says Ezra of his thought process at the time: “It was like, oh this is crazy. There’s a good chance this might not happen again. It’s rare.” The song, and his subsequent debut album Wanted on Voyage, soon bequeathed Ezra a coveted appearance on Saturday Night Live, with the singer-songwriter capitalizing on his fame by embarking on a tour for the next two hectic years.
“It’s an indulgent life,” Ezra admits of his time on the road. “You don’t think too much about what’s happening outside of your world because you don’t have time to. You’re in one town for a day and then you move on. It’s hard to have a grasp of what’s really going on and you start to lose track.” Just as Ezra was winding down his travels, an immense political upheaval began engulfing the world in 2016, from Brexit in his native country to the election of Donald Trump stateside. “At one point it seems like every opportunity for something to go wrong was going wrong,” explains Ezra, who had a hard time to both adjusting to the end of his tour and the changing world around him. “I (suddenly) didn’t have a purpose, or a reason or a job to get up for. I hated that and really struggled it with. Whatever it is we do, all of our jobs are important to feel like you’re part of something. I missed that.”
With his career at a crossroads, Ezra didn’t have any grand plans for a follow-up album. “I don’t think I was aware of any options for my next album,” he explains. “Approaching the second record, I felt like people wanted me to say that there was pressure, but I just didn’t really see it.” With that in mind, Ezra followed the same creative process from his successful debut and concocted Staying at Tamara’s far away from the confines of his English home. “Something I learned about myself, and I know it’s not a cool thing, is that I rely on human contact a lot,” he explains. “So I needed something to push me out of that deliberately and spend time by myself.” With that, Ezra ventured to Northop in England and rented a cabin. “I found it online, just loved it, and stayed there with no electricity for ten days. Our closest neighbor was a pig farm.” The extreme solitude made Ezra’s creative juices flow, whether crafting tracks like the album’s anthemic lead single “Paradise” or the buoyant “Shotgun.”
“It was very important for myself and was one of the pleasures of my life to spend those 10 days there. Very rarely do adults have the chance to spend time by ourselves. What it will do is that it’ll force you to start thinking differently. We rely on familiar faces and patterns and conversation, but when you’re by yourself, after five or six days your brain changes.”
Ezra also spent time in Scotland’s Isle of Skye, which reminded him of a Game of Thrones-type landscape (“Dark and bleak in a beautiful way”), as well as the aforementioned artists’ retreat at Tamara’s in Barcelona. “I’d be out of the apartment no later than 9 or 10 a.m. I’d get up and take a stroll, get some breakfast at a local cafe on the corner there, and take these amazing walks each day.” Along the way, Ezra was capturing whatever he could eventually use. “I’d bring a guitar and take a note of everything I’m doing: the people I’m meeting, the things I’m seeing. When I got back home, that’s what I write songs.” Formerly relying on notebooks, as of late he’s favored writing lyrics in a Word document on his computer which makes it easier to switch and delete ideas. “I had one friend who’d say to run with whatever lyric comes first because that’s what you’re instinct wants you to say. I kind of don’t believe in that because sometimes nonsense comes out, so it’s good to be able to look at it and readjust.” In addition, the singer-songwriter also relies on a document that runs dozens of pages and consists of a rambling list of potential song titles, lines and ideas.
“Paradise” has since become Ezra’s highest-charting single on his home continent since its January release, reaching No. 2 on the UK singles charts and managing to hit No. 1 in Scotland. But before its eventual success, it was the process behind the album’s birth that managed to ground Ezra again. “I can’t tell you how good it felt to have some sense of purpose back.”